With flawless food and classy interior, this new restaurant in the Cathedral Quarter is a smart choice for discerning Belfast diners
If a kitchen is the heart of a home, then a good restaurant provides the pulsating beat and life blood to its part of town. The only areas that can get away with not having a restaurant are cemeteries, landfill sites and weapons testing ranges. Everywhere else has to have one, or else the place isn’t worth living or working in.
St Anne’s Square in Belfast is a very desirable new-build residential area close to the city centre. The square, an elegant neo-classical affair that stands at the back of St Anne’s Cathedral, will soon be abuzz with the opening of the very modern six-storey Metropolitan Arts Centre. But while we’re waiting for the MAC to open, there is another reason for visiting the area — even if you’re not flat-hunting. That would be the Potted Hen bistro.
It’s not as if this part of the city is short of good places to eat. Within 50 yards are 27 Talbot Street, the improved Hooligan and Nick’s Warehouse. And you’ve got Hill Street Brasserie, Duke of York, Dark Horse, the John Hewitt and the Merchant all within 40 seconds’ walk from the square. So you’d think that was enough.
But St Anne’s Square is not just another bit of the town. It’s the last remaining and most critical piece of the regeneration jigsaw in the Cathedral Quarter. So it’s entirely fitting that it should have an exciting, quality restaurant at its heart.
The Potted Hen comes from good stock. Husband-and-wife team Dermot and Catherine Regan established Oregano in Newtownabbey and, despite a hiccup when I reviewed it two years ago, it has won many awards and recognition including a Bib Gourmand categorisation in the Michelin Guide, one I believe is as important and significant as a Michelin star in terms of guiding the diner.
So expectations were high when six of us descended on an early Monday evening after the New Year weekend. The timing may have explained why there was no duck confit, Cumberland sausage or scallops (which sounded so promising served up with Clonakilty black pudding) as featured in the menu. It was going to be particularly hard to get over the scallops, as the order for two had been taken by the server only to come back red-faced to say the last lot had already been snaffled.
Hard, that is, until the alternatives were served: chicken liver parfait with the most perfectly baked golden little brioche roll, and salt & chilli squid. The parfait was as smooth and almost as light as whipped cream, its accompanying chutney dark and bitter sweet and the brioche meltingly flakey and buttery moist. It was perfect bistro food and would have been heavenly with a chilled glass of Sauternes, though I hadn’t thought to order some.
The adviser’s squid was unusually good, encased in a brittle, crumbling spicy crust and served with shards of scallions and peppers, shredded lettuce and ginger with a little dressing. This completely revived a dish that has become ubiquitous and often bland. Both had ordered scallops and both were well consoled.
A tidy but decadent Scotch egg was served split in two to reveal a soft and viscous yolk. With it came gherkins and mayo to marry nicely with the sausage meat and breadcrumbs. The only place that used to do a Scotch egg like this was the Barking Dog, but it has since come off the menu so I made the most of it here and had two.
Mains of pork belly with pureed celeriac, rib-eye and chunky chips, hake with creamy sauce, mussels and rouille scraped onto a piece of toast, all were without exception mouthwatering, well cooked and prettily presented. The stuffed pork belly was served with moist black pudding and this arrived on the side in a sensitive piece of customer awareness — the server had remembered that the aborted scallop order had been made with a request to keep the pudding to the side. The thyme stuffing was too intense, however.
My hake was a delight and the creamy sauce and rouille on toast were wonderfully clever references to classical French fish soup recipes. I became conscious that much as we tried to find something to criticise — something to amuse you with — there was little wrong, apart from the thyme, with anything. Even the side veg, which included kale, was a pleasure.
I tried to take the hand out of the décor — an unlikely fusion of Quinlan Terry neo-Victoriana including full dado rails and painted wood panelling, and Pompidou Centre-inspired exposed air ducts. Yet this worked too. Chinese slate on the floor, dark brown bistro wooden furniture, black and white tiled bathrooms, combined to create a kind of timeless zone of its own. And even on this windy cold night, it was warm in the high-ceilinged, large-windowed Potted Hen.
The Cathedral Quarter has become a culinary quarter and while the Out to Lunch Festival is on at the Black Box, you should go down there and try some of it. You won’t be disappointed.
Goat’s cheese: £5.25
Scotch egg x 2: £13
Squid x 2: £12.50
Chicken liver: £5.95
Pork Belly: £14.50
Minute steak x 2: £27.90
Chicken goujons: £5.95
Onion rings: £3.75
Eggnog brûlée x 2: £9.90
Bread & butter pud: £4.95
Hot chocolate X 2: £5.80
Diet Coke x 2: £3.20
T’air D’oc white: £17.95